Smith Island Is Vanishing

June 29, 2017  •  1 Comment

For hundreds of years, watermen and their families have lived on Smith Island, Maryland. The Chesapeake Bay sustained them, yielding its crabs and oysters to their hard labor. But now the island is slowly disappearing, the victim of two kinds of erosion. The bay is slowly swallowing the land. The population is eroding too, as people steadily move away.

I didn't get the name of the woman pictured above. (Sorry; my reportorial habits are slipping.) But I did learn that she is 86 years old, and a widow. She was born and raised on Smith Island, and she used to run a combination general store and crabcake restaurant called Ruke's. But it closed down in 2015, no longer making money. Her children and grandchildren have left Smith Island, finding jobs on the mainland, or "the other side," as I heard it called. She lives on the other side during the winters, too. But she comes back in the summer, because she likes the peace and quiet of the island.

I encountered her as I was riding a rented bicycle on one of the narrow, blacktop roads of the island, near the largest of its villages, Ewell. I stopped to photograph a house that once contained her neighbors. The owners just abandoned it, not even taking the car that sits in the rising weeds of what was once a front yard. Nature is steadily reclaiming the property.

According to Wikipedia, Smith Islanders once did some farming. I didn't see any farmland or even farmable land on my brief tour. Maybe I wasn't looking in the right places. But maybe the erstwhile farmland has just been submerged by the slowly rising waters of the bay.

That would leave Smith Islanders the waters of the bay as a source of sustenance. And, indeed, Smith Islanders have always been classic Chesapeake watermen. There are a couple of dozen long, low boats in Ewell's little harbor. They're built that way because watermen have to lean out over the gunwhales and reach down near the water surface to haul in their crab traps or use their tongs to rake along the bottom of an oyster bed. 

But there are fewer boats these days, and I heard a few different explanations as to why. One is that the government, in its efforts to make sure the crab and oyster populations can sustain themselves, puts too many picky limits on what watermen can do and when they can do it. Watermen, I was told, do what they do in part because they can be their own bosses. They don't like anyone telling them what to do. (Doubtless the regulators could make a convincing case that left to their own devices, the watermen might pull so many crabs and oysters from the bay that the populations died off, the way cod was fished to death in the waters off New England. But I didn't hear that case made on Smith Island.)

It's also true that pulling crabs and oysters from the bay is damnably difficult. A waterman's back and legs and eyes tend to give out after a lifetime on the water, leading to a short, painful retirement.  Steady jobs on the mainland, even jobs like being a guard at the state prison on the other wide in Westover, start to look more attractive. That may be why, if you look into what was once a shack for processing crabs on the dock at Ewell, you'll see a only pigeon perched on abandoned equipment. 

Smith Island has one famous food item, a ten-layer vanilla cake with chocolate fudge icing called the Smith Island Cake. In 2008, it was officially designated by the legislature as Maryland's state dessert. But when I ordered a slice in one of Ewell's two restaurants, the Harborside, it didn't taste quite fresh. I learned that a few years ago, the Smith Island Cake Co. moved its production facility to Crisfield, on the other side. It's a lot of trouble to haul things by boat or barge to Smith Island, and since there are no bridges, that's the only way to get something there.

That leaves tourism as a way to make a living, and Smith Island tries. There are a couple of B&Bs on the island. Every day, in the summer, there are a several boats that offer day cruises from Crisfield for about $25 round trip. They depart from Crisfield at 12:30 and they leave Smith Island for the return trip at 4. That gives most visitors time for a meal, a quick look at the little island museum in Ewell, and maybe a souvenir purchase in a gift shop. If you stay overnight, you can rent a kayak and explore the marshes, maybe photograph some herons and egrets, maybe fish a little. And that's about it. (The island is dry, so don't count on sipping a cocktail and watching the sun set.)

Other places in and along the bay, like Tilghman Island and St. Michael's, have lately become prosperous as second-home and retirement communities for the well-to-do of Baltimore and Washington. But they're a lot closer to those cities. Smith Island is a trek-and-a-half from just about anywhere but Crisfield. 

Thus, the numbers don't look good for Smith Island. According to the Bureau of the Census, the population has declined steadily in recent years, from 364 in 2000 to 207 in 2010 to 180 in 2015. If that trend continues, the end is in sight. Anyone who would like to see the people of a traditional American village making their living as their ancestors have done since the 17th Century had better go soon. At this rate, in another 25 years, Smith Island's population will be gone.


Gregory Winn(non-registered)
Well done Bob I felt as if I was there and enjoyed your betrayal. The only thing I always like to see is a map which lets me know exactly where the island is.
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